Off the beaten track... Latin America: Nicaragua
Do you want to get off the beaten track in Latin America? Here, we explain why Nicaragua could just be the destination for you.
From lush wildlife to Latino rhythms, Central America is home to some truly stunning destinations. A number of these, such as Costa Rica, are widely known for their attractions, while others linger in relative obscurity. Falling into the latter category is characterful Nicaragua, with its sublime volcanic landscape and charming colonial towns.
Perfect for travellers who want to get off the beaten track, this country offers a wonderful array of attractions. We spoke to Cox & Kings' expert Ariane Mick de Vizcaino to find out all about the country. So, today, we will look at the most prominent of these, as well as a few that rarely make it onto travellers' radars.
Bordering Honduras and Costa Rica, Nicaragua is a comparatively little-known country. The civil war that rocked the nation in the 1980s had the result of masking its many attractions as a tourist destination. Highlighting that while for some a negative image lingers, Ariane explained that the conflict is now firmly in the past and the nation has much to offer – not least a low number of tourists that creates a real off the beaten track feel.
Its friendly locals, spectacular volcanic scenery and intriguing colonial heritage marry with pretty coastlines and rewarding hikes to provide experiences enough for a ten-day to two-week stay.
Town square, Granada
Main attractions: Colonial towns and volcanoes
Ariane cited the country's colonial towns and dramatic volcanoes as its chief attractions. Granada ranks as its most attractive colonial destination, offering a classic mix of charming cobbled streets, beautiful old churches and colourful buildings. Exploring its tangle of streets, you can find chocolate-making classes (pointing to Nicaragua's cacao industry), tobacco rolling lessons and tastings of local rum.
What's more, Granada is perched on the beautiful Lake Nicaragua. This expansive body of water is largest lake in Central America and an important attraction in its own right. Indeed, it renders scenic boat trips on the lake a natural part of visits to Granada and, as we will reveal shortly, offers yet more possibilities for travel discovery.
Lying near to Granada are some fabulous volcanoes – Nicaragua's other core attraction. The Mombacho volcano is a particular highlight, according to Ariane, who enthused about the atmospheric cloud forest that lies in its crater. The Masaya volcano, meanwhile, offers you the rare opportunity to see some volcanic activity in close proximity. You can drive to the crater of this volcano and see the emitted vapours; Ariane recommended visiting at night if possible, when you are instead greeted by the glow of lava.
Nearer to the town of Leon (another attraction) is the Cerro Negro volcano. Translating from Spanish to 'black hill', Cerro Negro is covered in volcanic ash, meaning a visit here is a real contrast to others you may visit.
Ariane also cited the nation's wonderful markets as a highlight, explaining that there is a wealth of beautiful handicrafts, including pottery and weaving to discover.
Off the beaten track
While a trip to Nicaragua will itself take you off the beaten track, there are ways to break away from the crowd even further once you're there. First, Ariane recommended visiting other colonial towns – most particularly Leon, which has a wonderful literary heritage.
Indeed, Nicaraguan poet Ruben Dario hailed from here, and there's a distinctly bohemian feel from this artistic legacy. It's also home to the largest cathedral in Central America, which makes it an equally interesting destination for architecture lovers.
For those who prefer to get out in the open air, the volcanic island of Ometepe is another off the beaten track gem. Home to twin volcanoes, it can either be visited on a day trip from Granada, or you can stay on the island for several days. Ariane mentioned that the accommodation here tends to be simpler and more rustic, but that the island's wonderful hikes and ancient rock carvings make it ideal for anyone keen to escape and explore beautiful natural surroundings.
Mixing culture and scenery are the highlands in the north, where the nation grows its coffee. Here, you have a chance to stay on a coffee plantation and learn about how the delicious beverage is produced. This is also a great area for walking, making this another excellent opportunity for exploration in the fresh air.
For a taste of adventure, the little archipelago of Solentiname is a sound choice. Located at the southern end of Lake Nicaragua, it is home to an artistic community and laid-back vibe that make it perfect for viewing local art, and for taking trips down the San Juan River.
Linking the lake to the Caribbean, this waterway will lead you to a tiny town called El Castillo – another good spot far away from the usual tourist circuit. Composed of a fort overlooking the river and a sprinkling of houses, this little town makes you feel far away from the rest of the world.
Continue down the river and you'll come across the Indio Maiz Biological Reserve, which is ideal for nature walks. Take a stroll to spot birds, monkeys, sloths and more on either a half-day or full-day adventure.
And for those who like the sound of the coast? Ariane pointed to the scenic black sand beaches, which offer accommodation in the forms of eco lodges and luxurious properties – perfect for a treat at the end of your stay. Alternatively, the Corn Islands off the Caribbean coast of Nicaragua are small, palm tree-strewn gems that mix a slow pace of life with simple accommodation.
While Ariane stressed that the attractions of Nicaragua can easily fill a ten to 14-day itinerary, it is worth bearing in mind that the country is also well suited to wider Central American itineraries. "Because Central America is so small, it is very easy to combine exploration of a number of countries in a two or three-week trip," she explained, adding that the journey between Costa Rica and Nicaragua can be tackled by road within a day.
It is also simple to combine in a larger itinerary featuring destinations such as Panama, Costa Rica, El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras and Belize.
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